Identity and (lack of) Cohesion

Identity and (lack of) Cohesion
Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

Three years down the line, the PNC-led government still insists “Social Cohesion” is their official goal even as they have been most partisan in their actions– from unilaterally shutting down the sugar estates to blanking the Opposition from the US Congressional Delegation (CODEL). Unsurprisingly, there have been complaints by citizens who are worried about the end game.

Intuitively, they accept that “cohesion” cannot be a “bad thing”. The Jubilee Independence Commemoration poignantly brought to the fore rueful thoughts about “what could have been” if we had not been as divided as we’ve been. Guyanese do not need experts in sociology or politics to also apprehend that while social cohesion is a desirable state of affairs, there are no silver bullets to getting there. In other words, they understand efforts must take place simultaneously in a whole number of dimensions – at a minimum including social, political, economic and cultural ones, all of which the PNC-led government studiously avoids.

Starting with the last, the cultural problematic is fundamental because it plays such a key role in forming our individual and collective identities and hence, our perspectives. When we were brought to labour in the plantations the Europeans – in our case, first the Dutch and then the English – invented both “race” and “culture” to “keep us in our place,”  which is to say, subservient and second class at best. The Africans were described as “savages” who had no “culture” and as such their “bestial practices” were to be extirpated as a salutary practice. They were to be “thankful” and grateful for being “exposed to civilised culture”.

The problem, however, is that when one is imitating a “standard” that is intrinsically yoked to the physical characteristics of “race”, it becomes absolutely impossible to ever reach that standard. Even those “Coloureds” who - because of the rape of African women - had “half” or “three quarters” white “blood” could never become completely “civilized”. This did not stop many from feverishly trying, even into the present. But this one-sided clash of the dominant “white European” culture with the “African” did produce a hybrid culture – called “Creole” – that was the lived experience of the ordinary African, who stubbornly retained aspects of ancestral culture.

Persons become individuals with distinct identities through their own experiences and inculcated beliefs to form their memories that act as narratives of their “selves”. But man, unlike other animals, is enmeshed in social relations in which his identity develops and in turn those social relations are generally mediated by cultural norms in both the public and private spheres. In a society that is culturally homogenous, these are quite integrated but if the public and private cultures are different and clash, as with ordinary Africans, this can cause dissonances for the individual. Granger’s denunciation of “Guinness Bars” recently illustrated this disjuncture.

For ordinary freed Africans, this strain to emulate white/European culture was much greater than the Coloureds, since the latter were seen by others as an intermediate group. The Africans were relegated to the lowest strata and could only move up by becoming educated, acting “proper” in imitating white behaviour and marrying “fairer” to join the coloured. This constructed identity out of the values and beliefs of the culture form the framework for the individual’s interpretation and organisation of new experiences. This would become very relevant when new immigrants would be introduced into the society to provide cheap labour on the sugar plantations; and form a new basis of comparison.

It is of more than passing interest that when the Portuguese from Maderia were brought as indentured servants they were not then, nor later, classified as “European” – even though they were phenotypically that. They were “Portuguese” to the British and seen by the freed African people and later indentureds as such – never white, notwithstanding the pretensions of the ones who later moved up the economic and social ladder.

While they imitated the ruling British/European lifestyle, their Catholic variant of Christianity also served to distinguish them culturally. Many of the ones in the lower economic oracles intermarried with Africans and adopted Creole Culture. There were very few men among the Chinese who were brought as indentured labourers and most intermarried with locals and adopted Creole Culture even while contributing their cuisine to the new land.

All of them, including lower strata Africans, were to evaluate the “heathen” Indian Indentureds as the new lowest man on the totem pole. Their success create severe cognitive dissonances that lead to dangerous scapegoating – and lack of cohesion.

 (To be continued.)